Thalia Spice, You Again

This is more of an update to a visit to Thalia Spice at 833 W. Chicago Avenue in 2013. It was a pleasant experience with one dish that missed the mark. After catching up with a few friends in West Town, I wandered East and made a pit stop here again to get my fill before going to another gathering of friends later.

Clay Pot Mussels

Clay Pot Mussels

Instead of ordering large plates, I opted for a round of appetizers. The first was clay pot mussels. This came as a soup very reminiscent of Thai tom kha. Instead of chicken being the meat, there were mussels and these were not the nibble size mussels that you find on most menus. These were plump and meaty. So, it was off to a good start.

Mango Seared Scallops

Mango Seared Scallops

The next appetizer I ordered was a platter of mango seared scallops. There was a Caribbean feel to this dish. There were mangos, avocado, and tomatoes atop leaves of lettuce that already made for a tasty salad. The scallops were tender to the point of not requiring any effort to cut. This appetizer was surprisingly hearty. Although there were three scallops, the accompanying fruit salad made the experience a little more substantial than expected. This was not a bad thing, by the way.

Thai Fried Chicken

Thai Fried Chicken

The third course came as a plate of Thai fried chicken wings with a spicy sauce. I am loving the concept of Thai fried chicken, as the chicken is crispy without seemingly being heavy with batter. There was a mild spice to the wings that worked well with the tamarind sauce.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

The fourth appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Although I have had this at the sister restaurant, Thalia Spice, there was more roti for enjoyment with the curry chicken. And in true cultural spirit, I devoured the dish using the roti as my eating utensil. One note to myself is to order the curry chicken with a little more kick to it.

The King & I

The King & I

I finished with a light, yet filling dessert. Called The King & I on the menu, this was fried banana with vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey and accompanied with chocolate, strawberry, and kiwi syrups. Given all the food I had indulged, this was actually perfect. And since the temperatures were nice, I decided that I would have something refreshing from the bar before leaving. I couldn’t pass up having a sangria, so sangria it was and satisfying it was also.

Thalia Sangria

Thalia Sangria

I am finding that several restaurants I have gone to in the past that I left still feeling hungry or like I a forgettable dining experience have since made changes that I find very appealing and appetizing — for a lack of a better term. Thalia Spice was not one that I did not enjoy, but there are some dishes that clearly are prepared for local palates. I constantly have to remember to request for my dishes to come prepared with all the cultural goodness from the “old country.” Going with appetizers only was a very good option and it certainly made Thalia Spice move up on my list. Pan-Asian isn’t bad when it’s done good.

La Sardine, Not The Canned Kind

La SardineSeveral months ago the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant in the world, Osteria Langhe, recommended a French bistro to me since he knew that I liked the European feel to my dining experience. During my last visit to the Italian restaurant, I thanked the owner for his recommendation. He then offered a recommendation for another French restaurant that he was confident I would enjoy. My sister and I blocked an evening for a sampling and before going into the full review, I’ll just say that I will thank the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant for this most recent suggestion.

Located at 111 N. Carpenter Street in Chicago’s West Loop District is La Sardine. Come to find out that this restaurant is the sister location to Le Bouchon, which was the first French restaurant given to me as a recommendation. La Sardine is larger, less of a bistro, but without any doubt, the food is just as spectacular and the service is also top.

Not being in a rush, my sister and I opted for a round of various dishes for fulfillment of our own little degustation. There was a potato leek soup that puts to shame some of the same soup that I have had at numerous restaurants worldwide. Unlike the thin base that I have had in the past, this was creamy without the potatoes being the thickening agent. Fresh ingredients in the recipe and this was a perfect starter.

Potato Leek Soup

Potato Leek Soup

During my first visit to Le Bouchon, I had ordered the soupe à l’oignon gratinée. When my sister and I had returned for what was to be my second visit, she had not had the French onion soup, so it was a part of the meal for our La Sardine sampling. After cutting through the baked gruyère cheese and down through the crouton, she understood why I talked incessantly about how much of a fan I was of the soup. Midway through the soup, she declared that it was the best she had ever eaten.

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

It would be wrong to go to a French restaurant and not partake of any escargot. So, we had a platter of plump escargots à la bourguignonne bubbling in burgundy, garlic, parsley, and butter. After we had finished the savoury morsels, we used the homemade French bread to sop the remaining sauce from the little cups on the platter.

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Sin entered the picture when the bowl of moules au cidre arrived at the table. Granted the morsels in the mussels are light, the quantity of mussels was not small. To add to that, the mussels were swimming in a delectable cream sauce accented with cider and shallots. After we finished the mussels, we then used the French bread to sop the rest of the sauce. My sister, being a Catholic, spoke to an invisible priest, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.” Me being a practising Buddhist, simply acknowledged that I was enjoying the moment of gluttony and decided to be at peace with my higher power after coffee.

Moules au Cidre

Moules au Cidre

For my main dish, I ordered the rãble de lapin. The rabbit was delectable, tender, not oily, and nothing akin to gamey on the palate. Served with a potato risotto in an au jus, I had pretty much decided that I will spend quite a bit of time at La Sardine cleaning plates.

Rãble de Lapin

Rãble de Lapin

My sister ordered the magret de canard. This dish, one consisting of duck that was neither oily nor gamey, was a winner. This one came with lentils and rapini in an addictive orange sauce. There were exaggerated pauses in conversation during the main course. I have a habit of humming when food is divine and my sister gets reticent for a few minutes. We were silent for at least fifteen minutes.

Magret de Canard

Magret de Canard

There was no room for dessert. And although we watched some captivating sweets going to different tables, the most we could indulge was coffee. Coffee is the after-diner drink my sister always has and I opted for a cafe au lait. Quality bean, clean coffee machine, or whatever it may be, I can speak to the cafe au lait not requiring any sweetener and not making me feel like there was something bitter in the cup.

Cafe au Lait

Cafe au Lait

The service at La Sardine is through the roof. The restaurant fills quickly and there is a nonstop flow of patrons coming and going. Still, it is evident that the service plays a part in the experience being splendid for those who come. The food is hands-down the best French food in Chicago that I have had as of late — and I include the sister restaurant Le Bouchon in the number one slot with La Sardine. Seating is close, a rather European effect, so be forewarned if you go. Make a reservation because the energy is high. Go on an empty stomach, don’t be in a rush to stuff yourself, and be prepared to experience sin with all the good flavours of France.

Mon Dieu.

La Sardine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sable Saves the Evening

A few weekends ago my adventurous sister and I decided that we wanted to try another seafood restaurant. One seafood restaurant just north of downtown had been spoken of highly in reviews, so we opted to see if it was worthy of the high praise. Upon entry, it was clear that the restaurant was a great place to go for having drinks. However, the sazerac that I had left me wondering if I was missing something. And after a forced meal of dishes that looked appetizing, but weren’t, my sister and I were on the hunt for a Plan B. She had mentioned a neighbouring restaurant not far from the seafood restaurant, so we were off to overcompensate for the hunger pains that were overtaking us.

Sable

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

 

We went to Sable at 505 N. State Street in Hotel Palomar. Crowded at the bar with a large seating area for those who want to have a dining experience, Sable seemed like it would be an ideal Plan B. It was. We took a seat in the dining area without having to wait and the server was over to the table to explain the menu, make note of some specials, and offer suggestions. With it being cold outside, my sister started with an Easy Livin’ drink — her way of projecting herself onto a sunny beach. I had an alcoholic beverage that was more like a hot toddy with a nice amount of brandy, a hint of chocolate, some bitters, and bliss. I really don’t know exactly what was in the concoction, but I will say that it was a thousand miles better than the sazerac I’d had earlier that I swear was water with a splash of whiskey and absinthe.

Understanding that we had arrived late, we settled on two items that we knew would do well to ease the growling in our bellies and replace our scowls with smiles. There were creamed corn brulee and mussels. Creamed corn is an appetizing dish all on its own. Having a brulee crust atop of it did not detract from the dish. Actually, this was one item that I have been ranting and raving about since I went to Sable. The other was a huge bowl of mussels in a white wine sauce with garlic and garlic toast on the side. Hello, mussels. Good bye, Dracula. The last time we recalled having mussels as delicious as the ones we had at Sable was when we had gone to Autre Monde in Berwyn, Illinois. Those little morsels were greeted with insatiable appetites and gnashing teeth. Not to let any of the sauce go to waste, we soaked the toast in the sauce and devoured it to complete satisfaction.

 

For our finale, we ordered sorbet — blood orange and blackberry basil. These two scoops were what dreams of made of. Accompanied with berries and dainty cookie crisps, I read my sister’s mind when she was saying to herself, “This is where we should have come from the start.” Sable was an excellent contingency plan.

It may be the weekends or it may be every evening, but the bar section of Sable fills up quickly with a motley crew of lively patrons. Most restaurants in Chicago accept reservations and Sable may be a participating restaurant that does the same. Considering how good the food is for a hotel restaurant, I understand the crowd. What we had, albeit not a lot for our visit, was fine dining without fine dining prices. Those who are looking for a great restaurant with perfect drinks and outstanding food, make Sable your first choice if you are in the River North and Near North area of downtown. You will not be disappointed.

Sable Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

I See Food at Devon Seafood Grill

Devon Seafood Grill

Recently, I bit down hard and started a Chicago Alphabet Soup page on Facebook. For all the kicking and screaming I did as far as delving into social media, it was a good idea. There is still something of a human touch missing. Friends had told me to add Twitter, Tumblr, and a few other brand name social media outlets to my repertoire. I will slowly add them. One avenue that I thought would be good would be to actually engage people outside of my inner circle for advice, feedback, and recommendations. So, I found myself on the Meetup.com site searching for some foodist-photographer groups. There was one that stood out since it seemed to focus on the photography aspect of being a foodist. As much as I would love to claim major photography skills, there is a lot that I need to learn still. I figured I would recalibrate myself to hone my still shot skills and then indulge Twitter and other social media after a bit of more polishing. All of that research had left me with an appetite.

X-Rated Martini

X-Rated Martini

Sidecar

Sidecar

I called a great friend and mentioned that I was considering going to Devon Seafood Grill at 39 E. Chicago Avenue for my favourite American culinary fare — seafood. It was early in the afternoon and I knew that going before 6:00 PM would mean getting there before all the nouveau laissez faire parents arrived with their little wicked Damians and Rhodas to make a complete mess of the whole dining experience. Ah, but we opted to sit upstairs in the bar area, which solved the problem of witnessing bad little kids doing God knows what all it takes to get their parents’ attention. My great friend and I knew we would have no disturbances while she enjoyed her X-rated martini and I enjoyed my flight of whiskey cocktails.

Tuna Tartar

Tuna Tartar

Unlike some people we have heard ordering chicken fingers at ethnic eateries that don’t even have fancy baked chicken on their menu, we started with tuna tartar. Served over cucumbers and accented with a wasabi sauce, ginger, and wafers, we were rather glad that we had braved the bite of the wind coming off Lake Michigan. The cucumbers had a faint flavouring of ginger, although not atop the ginger. The wasabi drizzle did wonders on clearing our heads. Of course, there was sipping — my friend enjoying her X-rated martini flavoured with raspberry and lemonade and me mouthing off at how much I was enjoying my whiskey cocktail flight. Having started this whole thing with ordering flights of cocktails at restaurants, knowing that flights are not on the menu, our server lit up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza. Turns out she was not only a server, but she was also a bartender. And her talents are top. The Maker’s Market basil and lemon whiskey cocktail, the twist on a mint julep, and the twist on a sidecar left me speechless for the greater part of ten minutes. My friend and I acknowledged that we will request her when we return. If she’s not there, then we’ll come back when she is.

Biscuit and Butter

Biscuit and Butter

Shrimp Tempura Sushi Roll

Shrimp Tempura Sushi Roll

Lobster Tamale

Lobster Tamale

Lobster  Roll

Lobster Roll

Now, I had mentioned that I had an appetite earlier. That was no lie. The warm biscuits that came to the table with the dollop of honey butter put Southern biscuits to shame. There was a shrimp tempura sushi roll that rivalled the same sushi rolls I have had at countless top-notch Japanese sushi bars. When Devon Seafood Grill says that they get their seafood in fresh daily, the wow factor in their sushi is an indication that they are not lying. Another rather substantial appetizer that we ordered was the lobster tamale. This was nothing short of bliss in a creamy gravy and we all but picked up the plate and licked it after we had finished. Still, I must admit that one of my main reasons for wanting to go to Devon Seafood Grill was for their lobster roll. I rolled my eyes with each bite, and I don’t mean as in being cheeky. Add to that my habit of humming when food is good.

Lemon Basil Manhattan

Lemon Basil Manhattan

Mint Julep

Mint Julep

Sidebar

Sidecar

But now a good hour had passed and we were ready for more, yet something light. And then came a bowl of mussels to the table with garlic bread. People on self-imposed diets are wishing they had a thread of our hair for their voodoo dolls that they would torture relentlessly. I’m bald, by the way, however, my friend isn’t. There is almost a guarantee to get a batch of mussels full of sand in them. That was not the case with the batch we had. The sauce that they were swimming in was perfect for sopping. With a few more pieces of toast at hand, we made the sauce disappear.

Mussels

Mussels

By now, my friend had finished her martini and I had downed my flight of cocktails and a few glasses of water. My friend had a sip of my sidecar and was so pleasantly pleased that she ordered one of her own. I ordered another one. These were a few notches past ideal with the mixed platter and the plate of halibut. The mixed platter came with sea bass over mashed potatoes, haricot verdes, scallops, shrimp, and crab cakes. For those of you who are based in or around Maryland, Devon Seafood Grill prepares crab cakes the way that they are supposed to be done — with lump crab and a few crumbs to hold the crabs together, not as a cake with essence of crab. The halibut, flaky and wonderful, came with a lobster risotto and mashed potatoes. This was also a few notches past satisfying and all of it went bye-bye in appreciation of its great taste.

Mixed Platter

Mixed Platter

Halibut, Lobster Risotto, Mashed Potatoes

Halibut, Lobster Risotto, Mashed Potatoes

Devon Seafood Grill is one of the incredibly good seafood restaurants in Chicago proper. Yes, there are a lot of seafood restaurants that tout divine food, but quite a few have service that doesn’t balance the output from the kitchen properly, and that often detracts from an enjoyable experience. Devon Seafood Grill does an outstanding job of making sure that patrons’ dining experiences are worthy of return visits. Well, for disclosure, my experiences have warranted repeat visits — barring the episode where a little Rhoda threw her knife, fork, pen, and sticky pad at me in a fit of solidarity against her hands-off parents. One thing I shall note is that the price is not cheap. It is not exorbitant either. For those who go and want to enjoy your meal, I highly recommend sitting upstairs in the bar area. You still get great service. Yet there is an adult atmosphere upstairs where you can also enjoy some great bar service and conversation without yelling if you’re on a date. And if you want to take a chance on getting a flight of some beverage, request a flight of whiskey cocktails. Take your spacesuit because you will shoot straight for the stars thereafter.

Devon Seafood Grill on Urbanspoon Devon Seafood Grill - Chicago on Foodio54

Bravo and Encore

Basil Leaf Cafe

One early evening during a summer day in 2012, I had the opportunity to go to a restaurant that was hosting a wine and food pairing. Being perhaps one of the individuals, if not the only one, who was not a sommelier, I thought that the event would be a bit out of my league. And then the food came to the table. Yes, the wine was splendid. However, the food was a major highlight for me and one that stayed with me since that participation in the wine and food pairing. With work gobbling up a great deal of my time and then my high school sweetheart and me taking an extended vacation to Calgary, Montreal, and Lisbon, scheduling a return to the restaurant of my culinary dreams had faded. A new year began in 2013 and I had finally entered a note in my cell phone to make a reservation for a dinner at Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street. It would be my luck that the cell phone went to sleep permanently on me and January was speeding by fast. There was no way that I was going to find myself well into 2013 before actually returning to the restaurant.

Olive Oil and BreadWith the New Year I had decided that I would focus on degustations more during my dining excursions. Too often I find myself scrambling to eat my appetizer and entrée before they are cold because at many restaurants both come to the table simultaneously. That is very much an epidemic at American style restaurants because there appears to be a need to rush patrons. Since Basil Leaf Cafe was the first restaurant that I was blogging for 2013, there was no better way to start my newfound appreciation of degustations than the present. A most inviting welcome on entry and my pick of seats because I had arrived before the dinner crowd, I handed the menu to my server, told her what I liked, and told her to surprise me. As a complimentary l’amuse, there was warm, homemade bread served with an olive oil that had various Italian herbs and spices in it. I would normally add Parmesan cheese and pepper, but that would have been a bit evil considering how flavourful the bread and olive oil were together. Oh, if I may add, bread is a source of weakness for me. I can’t deny it. I can’t refuse it. And if it is as good as what I had at Basil Leaf Cafe, then I tend to indulge to excess without any additional thought. And a note to myself is to find out the recipe for the olive oil so that I can try my hand at it at home.

Butternut Squash Soup

The first course to the table was a butternut squash soup. Let me start by saying that I have had my share of butternut squash soup and have loved it. This was the first time I had the soup and the first sip gave me pause. It was absolute heaven. I had a few more sips and then declared with certainty that I had just tasted the best butternut squash soup ever. There was no aftertaste. And the hint of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or whatever spice was added left me with a rather wide smile. I guess my server thought that I was making up a story when I said that it was the best butternut squash soup that I had ever eaten. There was no lie and because I had to maintain decorum, I did not take any of the homemade bread and go around the edges and bottom of the bowl. Only the first course and it was evident that the rest of the meal was going to be progressively better.

Mixed Berry Salad

And then there was a mixed berry salad that came to the table for the second course. I had told the server that I was not a fan of nuts and not because of any allergies. The texture and taste do nothing to assist my appetite. The salad was one that usually comes with walnuts. However, they were omitted. Having been to restaurants where my mentioning of not liking nuts was treated as an omission and I had to pick around the nuts to keep from making my whole dining experience unsavoury, the fact that my server had explained that walnuts are usually an ingredient in the salad and they were left out at my request, that made each bite all the more worthy. The mark of an outstanding wait staff is when they listen to the customers. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries sat atop lettuce, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with crumbled gorgonzola cheese. The only other times I have had any kind of fruit in my salad were when I had apricot salads at one of my favourite Algerian restaurants. Berries on salad always looked a bit much, albeit quite appetizing. However, having the mixed berry salad and seeing that I had left only a smear of the vinaigrette afterwards was proof that it was not only visually stunning but it was incredible to the palate.

Linguine and SeafoodI was going to be daring initially and try two entrées — a vegetarian dish and a seafood dish. After being warned that the portions were large, I opted instead for the seafood platter. The third course was a seafood linguine. Plump shrimp, fresh salmon, well-seasoned mussels, tender scallops, and delectable clams rested on a bed of linguine and topped with a red sauce before I began working on the entrée. The pescatarian in me yelled, “Bravo!” and enjoyed the whole dish leisurely without a care in the world. Perhaps if I had a glass of wine to go with it, say a Merlot or a Malbec, I would have had a Food Network composition. But the dish was perfect with the glass of orange juice. One thing that I really liked most about the seafood linguine was that it had a spicy kick to it without me requiring glasses of water. And the seafood was nothing akin to the nibble size morsels that you find in most Italian seafood dishes. Not only was the portion of the entrée large but the seafood was not lacking in quantity and quality of freshness. I kept screaming, “Bravo.” Of course, it was to myself, though.

CappuccinoAfter the bread and olive oil, soup, salad, and seafood linguine, I required a bit of rest before entertaining a coffee and dolce. In keeping with letting everything be a surprise, I deferred to my server for the sweet. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I always choose espresso or cappuccino. It probably would have been wiser for me to have ordered an espresso so that I could have avoided fighting sleep after such a wonderful meal. Instead, I had a cappuccino and my server brought an apple tartlet with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to the table. One bite and I could have hit a tenor aria to have brought the restaurant to its feet for a standing ovation. It was clear that the dessert was not something you find in the frozen section at the local market. No, there was no syrupy compost drowning chunks of overcooked apples. There was flaky crust enveloping thin, tart apples that had been cooked in their own juices. If it were not for the ice cream accompanying the apple tart, I would have dragged my dessert feast for a full hour. Being cognizant of the ice cream melting, I savoured the dessert and the cappuccino slowly and to completion. And let me just say that I did not need to add any sweetener to the cappuccino. The mark of a splendid cup of coffee is not having to add extra sweeteners to it to make it palatable. When you can enjoy your coffee the way I enjoyed the cappuccino at Basil Leaf Cafe, then you have had your coffee proper.

Apple Tartlet with Ice Cream

One thing I have not considered was coming up with a Top 10 list of restaurants in Chicago. What I can say with certainty is that as of me penning this blog entry, Basil Leaf Cafe holds the number 1 spot. That is a bold statement. Yes, others may scream that I am being unfair and that I need to come to their restaurants. Believe me when I say that as long as I am in Chicago, I will find my way to your dining haven. One thing to note is that when service, high quality of cuisine, and price come together to form an inviting request for a return, how can you possibly deny a bravo and an encore? You simply can’t. Only on a few occasions have I chosen to let my server make my dinner choices for me based on my likes and dislikes. What I experienced at Basil Leaf Cafe was a winning game of cuisine roulette. I was impressed thoroughly during the wine and food pairing at the restaurant that one summer evening in 2012. I was even more impressed during my second visit. I shall indeed return for an encore. I highly recommend that you visit Basil Leaf Cafe and see for yourself.

I Come From Another World

HarvestBerwyn, Illinois, is surprisingly becoming a suburb for those who have no compunction about indulging tasty food. A former colleague who lives in Berwyn has introduced me to a few restaurants that have shown themselves worthy of repeat visits. There supposedly was a feature on television for a restaurant that is out of this world. Autre Monde, translated as “another world,” and at 6727 Roosevelt Road, was touted as a must-go-to eatery for those whose palates enjoy cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. My former colleague had gone to the restaurant and had spoken to how you cannot describe the taste — you simply had to experience it. Well, that was all I needed to hear to know that I wanted to be transported to a another world where people relished at aromas that tickled the noses and flavours that danced about the tongue like lords a leaping.

Autre Monde has a look and feel that is rather common among a lot of lounges in the immediate West Loop and Near North Side sections of Chicago. The lighting is dim, giving a muted orange glow. Everyone is glamorous, almost to the point where you wonder if it hurts to be so beautiful. The atmosphere is intimate. It is always recommended that you make reservations well in advance for the assurance of a seat and you arrive for the time that you have made the reservations, lest you relinquish your seat. The restaurant fills quickly. Of course, the service is outstanding and they will accommodate you if you visit without a reservation. But once you are there, be prepared for one of the best dining experiences of your life and a recognition that Chicago suburbs are, per the current urban lingo, on and popping.

Hummus and Fava Beans SpreadHaving the Christmas season upon us, my former colleague and I were in a festive mood. This was going to be a gathering before I departed to spend Christmas with my family and she to spend it with hers. With the restaurant filled, bearing others who came with co-workers and other friends dancing and doing things a notch short of embarrassing, we figured we would really get started with something from the drink menu. There is a drink called Harvest that is nothing short of autumn in a glass. I never would have imagined that whiskey and cider would be a great combination. Add a dash of cinnamon and you have a winning drink. Because we had saved our appetites for Autre Monde, we were careful not to imbibe the Harvest as though we had been crawling across the desert and were ridiculously thirsty. We tempered ourselves and placed our orders to cater to our degustation wants.

The first course we opted to sample was a plate of hummus and fava beans. There is no reason to ever go to a Mediterranean restaurant and not order any hummus. It is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and with some pita bread, you can fall in love with those creamed chickpeas, olive oil, and spices. Now, add fava beans to the mix and this was nothing short of Silence of the Gino, Mediterranean style. I have had fava beans with fish, chicken, pork, and in a complete vegetarian meal. I have even had them with a Chianti. Having it prepared as a spread was a new experience and one that I enjoyed more than I can put into words. It may be that it was something completely different to my palate. It may be that it was really that delicious. We’re not talking a dish that was heavy-handed with spices enough to be the glaring complete antithesis of a boring plate. It was a perfect start.

Mussels au Sete
Then we moved on to Mussels au Sete. I wanted muscles. I got some now. My arms are noticeably larger than they were several months ago. But I wanted mussels that tasted award winning in a savoury gravy. Lucky for me, I was already at Autre Monde and was happily obliged. It had to be the light gravy that made the mussels have an unforgettable taste. Heavy enough on the garlic but not enough to send a vampire running back to his coffin, my former colleague and I dipped the complementary toast in the sauce and devoured the delicate mussels with a tempered hunger. After all, we had more in mind to sample.

Moroccan Chicken WingsThe third menu item was one we saw going to other tables. The patrons were baring their teeth, frowning, and gnashing away with an animal intensity that made Sally in “When Harry Met Sally” come across rather tame in her mockery during the famous restaurant scene. Moroccan chicken wings landed on our plates and we topped them with cucumber yoghurt and a light pepper syrup. The combination of cool and hot was not something that my dining companion and I were going for but mixing the cucumber yoghurt and the pepper syrup really made the chicken wings scream. Even without adding the yoghurt and syrup, the wings had a flavour that held its own. The crust on the wings was delicate, nothing like the harsh crunch that you get on most fried chicken and definitely not a case of the Kentucky Fried Chicken sort, where the batter is almost feathery. We were contemplating ordering more of the wings, but that would have taken away from the degustation sampling we had planned. We were happy to have bared our teeth, frowned, and gnashed away on the wings that we had the way everyone else had.

Fontina and Wild Mushroom FlatbreadWe then graduated to fontina and wild mushroom flatbread. The whole concept of flatbread is all the rage in Chicago and has been for years. There are restaurants that make sandwiches with flatbread. Some pizzerias use flatbread as crust. There are even a few speciality cafés that serve it with dips and spreads. But when it is done right, it is an absolute showcase of talent. Looking at the fontina and wild mushroom flatbread, one would think it was pedestrian fare. It is anything but plain. The recipe apparently was well-balanced enough that the herbs and spices were present without overpowering the fontina cheese and the mushrooms. And let me not miss expressing the fact that you could taste the mushrooms, not simply chew them and know that they were on the flatbread.

Because the fontina and mushroom flatbread was so amazing, we wanted one more flatbread. An option was the spicy duck sausage flatbread. We immediately flagged this flatbread as a mandatory reason for a future repeat visit. Sun-dried tomatoes and seasoned duck sausage on flavourful cheese. It also found its way between our fingers, rising up from the plate, up towards our mouths where it entered and our teeth went to work. Smiles. Smiles as though we were on Fantasy Island. But it was no fantasy. If I had to choose between Chicago style pizza, Brooklyn style pizza, and the spicy duck sausage flatbread, Autre Monde would be happy to know that their little belly happy menu item would win.

Spicy Duck Sausage FlatbreadFor the finishing touch, we had pot de crème. Many people seek a pot of gold. If I want happiness, I only need the chocolatety hazelnut flavour of pot de crème to paint my face with a smile. So delicious it was that we intentionally took almost half an hour to eat all of it. There was no reason for us to rush through such a perfect dessert. The hazelnut influence in the chocolate custard had the right ratio to let you know that there was the presence of hazelnut but not such that it competed with the chocolate. After all, there were shavings of hazelnut on top with the homemade whipped cream. There could not have been a more fitting sweet.

Pot de CremeAutre Monde is, to put it succinctly, out of this world. For Berwyn to be such a homey suburb, you would never think that a restaurant with high-end atmosphere and top billing cuisine would be there. A few years ago, Berwyn was primarily a walk-up café haven where you were guaranteed some authenticity in the food you ate. The addition of Autre Monde and a few other restaurants will eventually have Berwyn filled with foodies seeking their Holy Grails of dining experiences. The price is commensurate with the quality of the output. The first time I went to Autre Monde, I did not have my camera and wished that I did. There was no way I was leaving home the second time around sans my toy to capture the culinary impressions. Actually, I wished that I had a camcorder to record my thousand faces of happiness as I ate. While I was able to capture the menu items that my former colleague and I had, and a picture is worth a thousand words, you will find that there are a thousand ways to express bliss for something delicious from another world.

Autre Monde Cafe on Urbanspoon

If I Were Lost

Saigon Pho  CafeOne of the things about being a part of the international community is that I am indeed open to trying new and exciting things, especially when it comes to food. As of late, I have been going to restaurants and switching into a mode of what it would be like to be abroad, lost, and hungry. Although I have several languages in my multilingual box, there could be the chance that I wind up somewhere among people who can only acknowledge my presence, but who cannot communicate with me other than with a nod, a quizzical frown, a smile, and a response of “Sorry, but I don’t speak English.” In the meantime, I would have to eat and it would help to not be a haughty American who sneers at everything that does not get come in the form of French fries, hamburger, hot dog, steak, potatoes, or macaroni and cheese. American comfort food has taught me one thing: it will bloat your waistline more than it will get you help abroad if you are hungry.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

I went to Forest Park, Illinois, to a stretch of eateries along Madison Street. On this particular day when I went, there were several different languages that I picked up and that is not something you find too common in the suburbs unless you are in the middle of a tourist setting where global visitors congregate. But in the midst of all the languages bandied about, outdoor cafes with patrons taking coffee, and quaint little side streets, there was a Vietnamese cafe that beckoned to me more. I obeyed and entered Saigon Pho & Cafe at 7237 Madison Street.

Mango Smoothie

Mango Smoothie

The inside is reminiscent of a polished hole in the wall. Far from the usual garish display that you may find at some Asian restaurants, it was quite homey. Being the only exotic in the restaurant, I was greeted with authenticity, not with distance. That was absolutely cool because the welcome made it a little easier to switch into the mode of imagining what it would be like to be in Hanoi somewhere off the beaten path and wanting something to eat rather than being guarded. I have been to several Vietnamese restaurants. However, I have never been to Vietnam and noting that the wait staff and a few who poked their heads out from the kitchen were all Vietnamese, I figured this would also give me the chance to try a few words in the language to give myself comfort. All of that went out the window when the waiter saw my camera and we launched into lengthy conversation about cameras, camera equipment, photography, and locations for getting great shots.

After the pleasantries had been exchanged and I had gotten out a few butchered words in Vietnamese, I placed my order. I ordered a mango smoothie without tapioca pearls. I love those pearls but even with the straw being wide, they tend to block the flow of the smoothie. Asian restaurants and cafes have a monopoly on smoothies and getting them correct. The mango smoothie at Saigon Pho & Cafe came in a fancy glass with a decorative stirrer, not in a plastic cup. And let me just say that the flavour exploded and had a little bit of pulp in it, which was all the hint I needed to know that some actual mangoes had been in a blender for the drink. And to go along with the smootie, I had egg rolls with a spicy plum sauce. Much like mini egg rolls that you have at Chinese and Thai restaurants, they were crunchy on the outside and filled with carrots, bean sprouts, and chopped shrimp.

Seafood Pho

Seafood Pho

With the weather having waffled a bit as of late, my sinuses had been having their merry way with me. Knowing that Vietnamese food can have a kick to it, I scanned the menu for one of the soups. If you do not remember anything about Vietnamese cuisine, they tend to shame anyone who attempts to make a good soup. The seafood pho that I had was a prime example. Loaded with vermicelli, shrimp, mussels, and fish balls, not only did the spices tell my nasal passages to behave but the taste was dazzling. But let me not forget one ingredient that I would otherwise assume the haughty American stance and thumb my nose in disdain. There were a few pieces of tripe in the soup. Ah, don’t bother looking it up on Google. Tripe is the inner lining of the stomach. We all know that chitterlings are a delicacy, and one that I would gladly endure being set on fire for rather than eating. However, tripe is one ingredient that I have partaken of in Nigerian pepper soup and in other Vietnamese soup without as much as a grimace. It may be that the texture is more akin to that of calamari rather than that of an uncooked dumpling. It may be that I have beheld the malodorous horror of chitterlings before they were boiled to their edible state and not experienced the same of tripe. It may also be that tripe, if cooked the right way, has more of a seasoned taste to it. Either way, I devoured all of the soup.

Vietnamese Crepe

Vietnamese Crepe

Wanting at least one other thing to journal for my experience at Saigon Pho & Cafe, I ordered a Vietnamese crepe with shrimp. Brought to the table on a large plate was a crepe stuffed with shrimp, bean sprouts, and spices. There was also a plate of lettuce, mint, carrots, cucumber, and a vinaigrette sauce. In the traditional manner of eating the dish, you take a little bit of the crepe, wrap it in lettuce with carrots and cucumber, dip it in the vinaigrette sauce, and then eat. There was only a little bit of the crepe that I could tackle before surrendering and requesting a box for the remainder of it. While I waited and cashed out, the waiter and I talked more about cameras, the wise choice of buying a camera body and investing in lenses, and recommendations of some Vietnamese restaurants in the city north of where I live.

For the few phrases of Vietnamese that I did get off my tongue, with a few corrections, English is quite a common language there. That’s fine, but when going to restaurants where there is someone in the kitchen or taking the order who knows as much English as I know Vietnamese, it would help to have a comfort requesting something for the palate. At Saigon Pho & Cafe, the price was much less that what one would expect. And with the wait staff being cool with my attempt at the language, I have a feeling that much like the way I learned Thai, I will polish my language talents in Vietnamese while indulging some pho on a regular basis. Hmm. No chance for me getting lost in Forest Park getting to the restaurant, for sure.

Saigon Pho & Cafe on Urbanspoon

A Season of Flavours

Trattoria 225

As a food enthusiast, I often find myself retracing my visits to certain restaurants. There is always something during that initial visit that becomes a draw to pull me back. The food was outstanding. The service was top. The price was reasonable. Any one of the three may have applied, but when you get an authentic invitation to return, that somehow trumps it all. When a great friend and I had gone to Trattoria 225 in February, not only did I find every aspect of the visit worthy, but the comfort the staff had engaging us in conversation spoke volumes. At many restaurants, taking customers to their seats, getting their orders, bringing their food and beverage to their tables, an occasional “Is everything all right?” and a plastic smile is “doing the job.” At Trattoria 225, making you feel that you have gone to a short stay with family is their job.

Peach BelliniLocated at 225 Harrison Street in the Arts District of Oak Park, Illinois, Trattoria 225 is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. When my friend and I had gone earlier in the year, I had a chance to talk to the manager about photographing the food — my food — and when a good time would be to come in for my own personal assignment. At that time, I did not have my camera, which was just wrong per the Foodie Mantra. As we sat at the table and worked our knives, forks, and spoons, on some of the most appetizing Italian dining this side of the Atlantic Ocean, I knew I had to return with my camera to capture the impressions that made us smile. But at age 44, time has a way of flying by, as if whole days or weeks are being devoured by a time monster. Fast forward to August and I finally return and upon being greeted, I knew that I would be quite thankful for what I was going to receive in terms of service and quality of taste.

Bread and Olive OilI started with a peach bellini. Now, I usually view peach bellinis as brunch drinks — ala cosmopolitan, mimosa, and the like. Yet again, it seems that bartenders at Italian restaurants have a mantra of showcasing their best talents only. The peach bellini was fruity and spiked nicely, but not to the point where I was hovering above the tree tops. The peach flavouring tasted more like a liqueur on the palate as opposed to a nectar. That was not bad at all. Not to quench my thirst too quickly, I indulged some warm Italian bread and olive oil with Parmesan cheese. Wow! I have had Italian bread that I had to struggle with in terms of tearing or cutting. Even then, I had to gnash at it — thankful that I still have my own teeth, not dentures. The bread at Trattoria 225 was nothing like that. Warm, crusty on the outside, and fresh on the inside, I had all of it with olive oil that did not taste like it had been purchased from a chain grocer. There is something to be said about olive oil that has flavour, not just oil in a bottle with a label saying that it is olive oil. As the wind blew about and I watched the sun set, I wondered what I would have to leave me with my saying: Who says that the first time sets the standard for how good “it” is?

Butternut Squash Ravioli

For an appetizer, I ordered butternut squash ravioli. The combination of brown butter, roasted walnuts, and fresh sage over the ravioli made for a wise decision for an appetizer. Neither heavy-handed nor laissez faire with the spices, I enjoyed each of the mini ravioli without complaint. Butternut squash soup is nothing new to me, but adding it to ravioli that had been baked to a moderate crisp had left me pondering a future menu of homemade butternut squash ravioli and butternut soup served with some meaty fish — tilapia, red fish, or trout. It may have been that the ravioli prepared in a fashion other than stuffed with meat, cheese, or spinach, that the plate was such a highlight. In true Oak Park fashion, a couple sitting at the table next to me engaged me in conversation about restaurants in the Chicago and surrounding areas. To quote the wife, it felt like we were abroad, because people usually if not ever strike up conversation with random strangers. Oh what niceties there are to learn from others. For example — recommended pasta dishes like linguine ai frutti di mare.

Linguine ai Frutti Di MareIt has been over a decade since I have partaken of spaghetti and meatballs. I love Italian dishes that have a tomato sauce base. But having been exposed to more rustic Italian dining, red sauces had seemingly disappeared from my radar — with the exception of eggplant Parmesan and an occasional dish of rigatoni. So when the couple had recommended the linguine ai frutti di mare, I was ridiculously appreciative when the waiter brought a colossal plate of the entrée to the table. Linguine, mussels, shrimp, and calamari in a slightly spicy tomato sauce had left me in a twilight daze before I was three-fourths of the way done. Italian dishes with a tomato base tend to be heavier, but the portions of the linguine ai frutti di mare were rather substantial. As much as I wanted to eat all of it, I also wanted to leave a little for lunch the following day. So I behaved.

Coffee and Cream

For dessert, I settled for something light — coffee hazelnut gelato. Only the size of a dollop, it still was satisfying. Rich and creamy, I would find it hard to believe someone if they had said that it came from the ice cream section at the local market. It was definitely good gelato, not ice cream. As for the coffee, I had spoken too fast and said that I wanted regular coffee. Cappuccino is usually my drink of choice after fine Italian dining. Honestly, I was rather glad that I had ordered the regular coffee along with cream. The mark of good coffee may be noted by one of two possibilities: the coffee machine is in top working order or the brand of coffee is of Top 5 quality. I drank the coffee sans sugar and that was truly an indication that I was not imbibing Folger’s or Maxwell House.

Coffee Hazelnut Gelato

Once again, I got a chance to talk to the manager when he had stepped outside to welcome the customers who had opted to have their meals outside. Although the byline on the restaurant’s awning says “rustic Italian dining,” he explained that the restaurant is more of a community eatery that serves Italian cuisine. If I have not learned anything about Oak Park, one thing I will say that I have latched on to is the notion that community is a major factor in the Oak Park meme. Any time I have gone to a cafe, restaurant, diner, or any establishment in Oak Park, there is a very strong sentiment of family and neighbours. You will always see families communing together. The same applies to neighbours who apparently gather for fellowship. Clearly, Trattoria 225 is one of the community hubs in the southern end of Oak Park. Then again, when you have an establishment with a manager who takes the time to talk to the patrons rather than observing business from a distance, you understand the allure. It was winter when I went to Trattoria 225 the first time. Although I missed spring and finally got to place my feet under a table during summer, I can say with certainty that it has indeed become one of my top eateries for all seasons.

Trattoria 225 on Urbanspoon

Foodie Mantra No-No

A few nights ago I met a great friend for dinner in Wheaton, Illinois. With me working in the West Suburbs of Chicago and he living even farther off the map, we decided that we would meet in a central spot and decide where we would work our teeth on something worthy. Before I left work, it had dawned on me that I had left home earlier without any one of my high-end cameras. Not that I had to have one of my Canons or one of my Nikons, but not having a camera is a cardinal no-no in the foodie mantra. See excerpt from Section 5.2 in the Foodie Bylaws.

Section 5.2: Must Have Camera at All Times
All foodies must have in their possession a camera that they shall use to capture the impressions of food and beverage. The cameras are not limited to professional cameras, prosumer cameras, point-and-click, and cameras on cell phones. Acknowledgement as a foodie shall be revoked if a foodie does not have proper equipment for photographing food or beverage.

When I finally realized that all I had with me was my cell phone, I cursed under my breath just before I sent a text message to my friend to tell him to bring his Canon. As a photographer, cell phone cameras are wicked devices that are better used for texting, setting calendar events, sending email on-demand, and posting ad hoc posts on Facebook. Needless to say, my friend had left home well in advance of my text message. More cursing and then me dropping my purist photography air and settling on using the camera on my cell phone. It takes great photos anyway.

Lobster Fra Diavolo

Lobster Fra Diavolo

Once in the quaint downtown of Wheaton, my friend and I looked at the menu at the restaurant we initially said we would try. Then we opted to review the menu at another Italian restaurant he had said received great reviews. At first glance, we settled on the second restaurant, Il Sogno, at 100 N. Hale Street. Up the stairs we went where we entered a dimly lit room with aromas all in the air. We knew that we had made the right choice.

With a server who was very much knowledgeable of the menu without having to refer to it when we asked for recommendations and very much in tune with the specials for the evening, my friend settled on chicken parmesan and I ordered lobster da fravolo. But before the entrées, we accepted the suggestion from the server for stuffed calamari. Let me just say that instead of getting a plate of well-seasoned rings of calamari, we got whole calamari stuffed with a cream sauce that deserves an encore. This appetizer was so delectable that if I get any more fried or plain calamari rings in the future, I may toss the plate on the floor and bark an obscenity in Italian.

If you think that my description of the stuffed calamari was a highlight, that was nothing compared to the entrées. The chicken parmesan that my friend ordered had come with a tomato sauce that was lightly spicy and with a hint of ginger. Hello! I have had a tomato sauce flavoured with ginger to the point where it was pungent. The faint taste of it at Il Sogno added an accent to the dish that made every bite a gala. As to the lobster da fravolo, there is a certain Italian restaurant in Chicago proper where I have been — that will remain nameless — that could take notes. Spicy like an arrabbiata, the well-seasoned lobster, mussels, and clams sat atop a bed of linguine under a lip-smacking tomato sauce. I drooled. My eyes went to slits from food comatose. I smacked the table. I hummed. My friend and I indulged ourselves to the point where we completed our entrées and had no room for any desserts. The only thing that we could muster was cappuccino and that was absolute top.

Butternut Squash Risotto

Butternut Squash Risotto

Because I could not get the thought of Il Sogno out of my mind or the wonderful taste of the calamari and lobster da fravolo out of my mouth — okay, an exaggeration — I was in Italian mode for much the remaining week. Having gone to Korean barbecue with another friend earlier in the week and then to Il Sogno the next evening, I decided that I would complete the weekend in my kitchen rather than dining out again. How about that? There has to be a special section in the Foodie Bylaws for indulging yourself in your own kitchen, as long as you abide by Section 5.2. Well, that was no problem. Being a lover of bread, I baked a loaf of Italian bread. And no loaf of Italian bread is complete without some fresh parmesan cheese, olive oil, and black pepper. How do you say, Yummy, in Italian? Warm from the oven and me sopping the olive oil, parmesan cheese, and black pepper while drinking pineapple juice from a mason jar, this complement was ideal with the butternut squash risotto that I prepared. Not to toot my horn, but when your neighbours knock on your door inquiring about whether they can borrow some ingredient only to sit at your counter, you are doing something correct. The butternut squash base took some careful preparation and I finally cooked the risotto so that it was al dente — not mushy like I have done before. Satisfaction.

Olive Oil Ice Cream with Raspberries

Olive Oil Ice Cream with Raspberries

Now, as of late I have become rather eclectic with the desserts that I have been preparing at home. Devils food cake baked with ancho and chipotle chillies. Chocolate gelato made with sweet curry. Vanilla ice cream made with strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. This evening was no exception. I had prepared a custard with olive oil and frozen it. Olive oil ice cream with raspberries. Who would have thought? Yes, there are some who are cringing, wincing, spitting, and rolling on the floor. But the olive oil adds a fruity hint to the ice cream, unlike what you experience when you are dipping Italian bread in olive oil mixed with parmesan cheese and black pepper. I get excited thinking about how refreshing and tasty the dessert was. And just to be even more eccentric, I drizzled a sweet olive oil syrup over the ice cream. I do not know what to do with myself.

Well, I abided by the Foodie Bylaws and captured the main courses for your visual delight. At Il Sogno I used the camera on my cell phone and was rather surprised to see how well it captured the lobster da fravolo. With me having professional cameras, the cell phone is giving them competition. At home, I used one of my Nikon cameras. The risotto almost never made it because the smells were so powerful that my growling belly had kept telling me to hurry and get to gnashing on the dish. I complied. For the ice cream, I shall enjoy this special dessert for the upcoming week while I ponder the next exotic ice cream concoction I plan to try. Regardless of what it will be, rest assure that I will have a camera ready to capture the impressions. I simply cannot shirk my foodie responsibilities by not having a camera ready. For shame.

Il Sogno di Barrella on Urbanspoon